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Everyday Miracles: Medical Imagery in Ex-Votos written in white lettering on a dark blue background.

A deity with a halo above their head floats above the scene of a child lying stricken in a bed with her mother kneeling in prayer. Ex-voto Anatomy is written in white lettering on an aquamarine background below the image. A doctor, his assistant, and a nurse attend to a girl's wounds at the local hospital. Italian tradition is written in white lettering on a red background below the image. Mexican Tradition A man wearing priestly robes stands near a full length cross surrounded by a white beam. Early medical guides is written in white lettering on a blue background below the image. A gallery of ex-votos. Below the image is written in white lettering on a gold background below the image.

Ex-Voto Anatomy

Retablos displayed in a room behind the altar in the Templo de la Purísima Limpia, also called La Parroquia, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Courtesy Magnus von Koeller.

An ex-voto is created when an individual's prayers for a miracle are answered. After praying to a saint for a miraculous healing, an individual would commission a local artist to create a small painting that would be hung in the local church as a public testimony of that individual's faith and gratitude for a miracle.


Usually done on canvas or tin, ex-votos generally consist of three basic elements: the illustrative depiction of the event, the narrative, and the depiction of the saint or deity. Variations of this standard form can be seen over time, but the central elements remain the same.


The image of a single deity usually floats above the scene sometimes surrounded by clouds indicating their heavenly presence.

Child with bandaged legs, 1977, oil on tin, 8 x 11-3/4, Mexico. Courtesy Historia Antiques
The bottom element is the narrative description of the illness or event including words of supplication to a particular saint or deity and a description of the miracle.

Centrally located is the visually descriptive scene of the illness, injury, or incident or an image of the stricken individual.


Woman suffering from tuberculosis, 1904, oil on tin. Courtesy Giuseppe Maimone Editore, Catania and Mario Alberghina

Ex-votos are not only symbols of faith and devotion, but also serve to document diseases and their treatments including smallpox and tuberculosis.

Emphasis is placed on the dramatic aspects of an illness including exaggerated symptoms evoking sympathy for the sufferer and validating the importance of the divine in the sufferer's recovery.

Close-up of a woman suffering from tuberculosis, 1904, oil on tin. Courtesy Giuseppe Maimone Editore, Catania and Mario Alberghina

Many depictions take place in the home where doctors and family members tend to the sick. Homes are generally modestly decorated and always include religious icons. Settings also include hospitals and operating rooms where doctors and nurses can be seen using surgical instruments and other medical equipment. Patients are seen in bed or on an operating room table. They appear calm and serene as their faith and devotion enables them to transcend their pain and suffering.

Woman undergoing surgery, 1914, oil on tin.  From the Chiesa dell'ospedale Santa Marta (Church of the hospital of Saint Martha), Catania, Sicily.  Courtesy Giuseppe Maimone Editore, Catania and Mario Alberghina.   Close up of a woman undergoing surgery, 1914, oil on tin.  From the Chiesa dell'ospedale Santa Marta (Church of the hospital of Saint Martha), Catania, Sicily.  Courtesy Giuseppe Maimone Editore, Catania and Mario Alberghina.